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All Aboard! Stepping Back in Time on the Grand Canyon Railway

by • March 26, 2017 • Current Issue, Travel

My husband and I are huge fans of mixing our family’s travels with historic adventure, always mindful of creating wonderful memories while crafting an itinerary that blends fun with a bit of education. When we recently decided to trek to the Grand Canyon, we discovered what we believe to be the very best way to experience the majesty and magnificence of what is considered to be one of the Seven Wonders of the Natural World (and a trip that required very little “planning” on our part): An all-inclusive package that encompassed accommodation at the warm and welcoming Grand Canyon Railway Hotel and scenic (and entertaining) train travel to the South Rim.

Chartered in 1866 to build west from Springfield, Missouri, the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe Railway ran along the 35th parallel, eventually connecting Amarillo to Pecos, Pecos to New Mexico, Barstow to San Diego. Along this 7,500 miles of track was the unwavering line between Williams, Arizona and the South Rim of the Grand Canyon. First afforded status as a Forest Reserve in 1893, the park did not receive national status until three years after the creation of the National Park Service itself, in 1919. Today, the park receives nearly five million visitors. Roughly one hundred times more than the 44,000 visitors it averaged from 1919-1920, and right around the time that the Santa Fe became famous for its passenger trains.

Known for covering long distances of line without access to water, the Santa Fe was one of the first rail companies to purchase diesel locomotives for freight service, which housed on-line eating houses and dining cars operated by Fred Harvey. Harvey’s legacy is vast in Williams and the Grand Canyon for his gem of architectural elegance placed directly on the rim of the crevasse: El Tovar.

Between the historic town of Williams and Grand Canyon National Park lies the Grand Canyon Railway and Hotel. Built in 1908 by Harvey House Corp., the hotel had a variety of guest rooms, a formal dining room, cafe, bar, and a news room. A perfect compliment to the Williams Depot, the hotel still stands today. The Railway itself has been taking guests into the heart of the canyon for over a century, and riding it has become much more than just a way to get from point A to point B: it is a time machine and a postcard – a wonderful way to experience the romance of travel by train.

Listed on the National Register of Historic Places and the oldest poured-concrete structure in the state of Arizona, the Williams Depot is and has been an oasis for visitors travelling to and from California along the main line for decades. En route to the canyon are varied landscapes, including pine forests and sprawling prairies with ample opportunity to spot antelope, the California condor, fox, deer, bald eagles and wild horses. Onboard, colorful railway characters bring history to life with mock train robberies and strolling cowboy musicians with a keen sense of humor lead passengers in old-time sing-alongs. Our kids were particularly enthralled by a Western gunfight portrayed by authentically raucous actors prior to boarding and a train robbery on the return trip.

Once we arrived at the log-cabin style Grand Canyon Depot in the South Rim, we found ourselves within easy walking distance of many popular scenic overlooks and most of the village’s historical buildings, which we had plenty of time to explore at our leisure during the four hour “layover” before boarding the train once again for the journey back to Williams.

After the two-hour ride to the northern terminus of the line, experience the luxury of a bygone era at the newly refurbished Grand Canyon Railway Hotel. Standing just next to the historic depot and a skip, hop and jump away from downtown Williams, those looking for an easy way to see the grandeur of the park can purchase a getaway bundle, including everything from train travel to a hotel suite or spot in the Grand Canyon RV Park. With a variety of amenities, the Grand Canyon Railway Hotel features 298 rooms, complimentary wi-fi, an indoor pool, hot tub, and delicious dining options at the Grand Depot Cafe and Spenser’s Pub. Open year-round, the hotel and train operate under the unpredictable weather of the Canyon, and guests can find comfort and refuge any time of year – from late-summer thunderstorms to winter’s snow and ice (aboard the Railroad’s Polar Express).

For more information, and to book your adventure today, visit www.thetrain.com.

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